As the games were being ticked off as the season raced towards the final turn, FC headed to an in-form Nantwich needing to win in a tough looking mid-week fixture, the action wasn’t restricted to the 90 minutes though.
Who said that football is just a game?
In theory it is, but the emotions after securing a dramatic win will stay with players and supporters forever! It’s even more special if you are successful and manage to secure silverware. Along the way to the elusive prize there will always be ups and downs – and the downs seem to take longer to get over. For me, if you love football the way I do then it’s hard to shake off a defeat, then again, there is nothing better than a win…I can’t help but celebrate, it’s who I am!!
My love affair with Nantwich Town goes back to the 2003/2004 season. Every time I hear or think about them, I have a special feeling. This was the year that Clitheroe FC won the North West Counties League Division One, and of course I was a player at the time, we had to travel to Nantwich for the last game of the season and it was a red-hot day, we had to win the game to win the league. Mossley were in second place and we’d gone toe to toe with each other all season. Nantwich were also riding high, third from memory, so this was going to prove to be a tricky game. When we went out for the warmup, I remember seeing all Mossley’s players and management dressed in their black and white tracksuits and I said to the lads, ‘Look at them trying to intimidate us, do not even look at them’. I said this not knowing that the league had asked them to be present. They had finished their season in the midweek. As it was the last game of the season the league had decided to present the trophy to the winners. Due to this reason they had asked Mossley to be present. If we lost or drew, then Mossley would be crowned champions – imagine that!
Clitheroe has always been a well-supported side and today was no different. Several supporter coaches had travelled, to create a ‘home’ atmosphere like we were used to at Shawbridge. Clitheroe had not won any silverware since the mid-eighties so today was huge for the club. It was the talking point all around the town and at the time I lived there, so all week people were asking me if we could do it. Could we become champions?
It was touch and go if I would be fit all week. I had tweaked my hamstring in a 1–0 defeat to Newcastle Town the previous week. I did not want to miss this one, but I had to settle for a place on the bench, I knew I was not 100% fit. Stuart Todhunter (Toddy) took my place. Toddy was nearing the end of his career. He had been a great player and we needed him today. The game kicked off and within the first half an hour we were 2–0 to the good. Gary Jackson, our prolific centre forward, scored both goals. Toddy was immaculate and was rolling back the years. However, he was being marked by Melford Knight. After 35 minutes the game changed. Melford went through the back of Toddy, a horrible challenge and Toddy was stretchered off. I was going mad on the touchline. I knew It was too early for me to come on, so I declined. The game changed at this point. Nantwich got a foothold in the game and it was only a matter of time before they scored. 2-1. It was all Nantwich. We went in at half time leading, but you could feel that the lads were nervous as the home side had the momentum.
We went out for the second half and it was all Nantwich. If they scored again then Mossley would be champions. 75 minutes played, BOOM, 2-2. You could feel it slipping away. Lee Sculpher (Scully) was our player-manager and shouted over to his assistant Martin Eatough ‘Get Reno ready’. I knew I was only 50% but I had a role to play even if I could not get around, I had to settle the lads down and if the chance came, smash Melford! We go back a long way and we used to love our battles together on the pitch, so on 78 minutes I joined the fray, and within two minutes I was hovering over Melford as he was being stretchered off, ‘That is from Toddy’ I said!! I must have hit him at knee height, a proper tackle, Melford was their main player so I knew he had to be stopped. I started to get on the ball and got us higher up the pitch. 87 minutes played, Nantwich broke suddenly. They pumped a long ball into our box and Adam Gardner (our RB and captain) looked to handle the ball, their players were going wild asking for a penalty. I could hear the noise, the ref waved play on…it’s a good job VAR wasn’t around then, say no more. The ball bounced and Adam smashed it away onto the left wing. Martin Aspinwall (Aspy) picked up the ball, he was rapid and started travelling, I just thought, get out and start running towards the Nantwich goal - I forgot all about my hamstring, I needed to make up 90 yards and the adrenaline had taken over. Aspy played the ball into the feet of Lee Cryer on the edge of their box, he held the ball up and could see me approaching, he then backheeled it right into my path. I took one touch and I was staring at two centre halves, the keeper and the goals. With my second touch I opened my body up and bent it into the bottom corner, 3-2!!!! Wow, was this the moment that we would be crowned champions?
I ran over to the fans, they went wild and I next remember being underneath a crowd of players and about 50/100 fans!! The game restarted and we kept the ball. No one was going to take this away from us. The ref blew his final whistle and that was it – CHAMPIONS. Ironically, to date this would be the last piece of silverware Clitheroe have won. We did not know this at the time, but we needed to enjoy it. The presentation took place and Mossley stayed to congratulate us, fair play, that must have been tough after a season where we’d gone to the wire. For us, the celebrations were just about to begin. We took over the bar of Nantwich FC. The fans, the committee, the players…we were going nowhere. I am guessing that is where the needle between me and Nantwich started. I had a fallout with their chairman as he was trying to move us on. You can imagine, we refused to go home as we were not going anywhere, we wanted to create more memories. Eventually we left around 9pm, singing as we went, annoying all the neighbours. Who cares, this was our time!
Despite whomever I have played or managed, I’ve always look forward to Nantwich away. It’s slightly different now as in 2007 they moved from their old home into a brand new stadium. Despite this, it is the name for me. This season I arrived as Manager of FC United. It had been a while since I had competed against them due to football circumstances. This was a huge game for us. We had just been hammered on the previous Saturday by my old club Bamber Bridge 3–0, and Nantwich were flying in the league. They had recently beaten South Shields away 4-1 and some people were telling me that they were very strong. To keep our ambitions alive, we knew we would have to come here and win and put in one hell of a performance.
Team picked, warm up done, team talk completed. It was now kick off, the game started at a fast tempo. Tackles were flying in from every angle. Their manager must have told his defenders to stop Tunde. Tackle after tackle, Josh Langley would smash Tunde. He would then look to leave his elbows in when it was an aerial battle, pull his shirt when he was getting away, you name it, he would not let Tunde out of his sight. Fair play, if my defenders were to play against Tunde I would probably say the same thing. Langley was doing well but Tunde loves a battle and was up really up for it. As with all games both dug outs would appeal to the linesman or referee if they felt decisions were going against them. I recall shouting to the ref and asking him how many times Langley would get away with his fouling before he did something about it. This was not welcomed from their technical area. Their manager, Dave Cooke, was obviously annoyed by what I had said and started to hurl abuse at me. I’ve no idea why I responded with what I said, but under the floodlights, Cooke’s teeth looked extremely white…maybe he had them whitened or was it just the lights?? I just came out with it….’SHUT UP TEETH!!’. This seemed to really rile him, wow, I had him with that comment. For the full game he would say something to me, and I would respond with ‘TEETH’. You could see in his face that he hated it. I can honestly say, hand on heart that I did not swear at him, although he was vile to me, I just kept saying the same thing…the touch paper was well and truly lit.
Although Cooke and I were exchanging comments I was wary about one of his staff members. Do not get me wrong, I knew I had Chaddy and Matty if it went off, however, this guy…wow!! He was massive and must have been close to 7 foot and he was wider than two of me - he was a beast! I kept thinking, if I upset the manager, and he sticks up for him…. I best run!
We scored in the first half and deserved our lead, I was so proud of the lads as they were on the back of a morale dip due to the previous result. I was doing everything I could from the sidelines to help the lads. Again, this must have annoyed their bench. They started hurling insults about my suit, FC, you name it…. If they had concentrated on their team then the result might have been different. There is nothing better than a technical area battle, especially if the result goes for you. There were several FC United fans behind our technical area that evening and if I was in the wrong, they would tell me. They could hear everything that Cooke was saying.
We went in 1-0 up at half time. We came out for the second half and Nantwich had a spell in the game where they thought they were going to score. Cam made a magnificent fingertip save to deny them. You could see their bench, they thought they were soon to score and the insults continued. That was it…with my 50th ‘TEETH’ comment of the game, Cooke lost it. He was walking towards our technical area…he isn’t a very tall man but he was furious, it was so reminiscent of McGarry and Harrison who had been so influential in my playing career…. I’ve no idea what makes them so mad!
Cooke was screaming at me ‘I am gonna do this to you, I will do that to you’…he was going nuts. Then from nowhere it was like someone stood in front of one of the floodlights as the shining brightness seemed to dim…they did, I was now staring up at the Beast!!! I looked in his eyes and I thought he was going to kill me…. WOW, me being me I did not back down. The linesman intervened and we returned to our technical area. We continued to exchange words and then the Beast said, ‘Wait until full time’. Sugar, I knew there was no escaping as the only way to the changing rooms was down the really tight tunnel!
The game ebbed and flowed but as the final whistle went, we more than deserved our victory and we won the game 1-0 - the perfect away result and the lads were immense. We had tactically deployed Curtis Jones into the holding midfield role like we did against Warrington away earlier in the season and his performance typified what this team is about – true character even when things go against them. We had got our season back on track and we had beaten one of the form sides in the league.
We all hugged, and the FC fans started to sing…The majority of them were on the far side of the pitch so we knew, as always, we would go over to celebrate with them. Now, even though tension was high between the two technical areas, the game was over. Shake hands and move on but not tonight. I went over to Cooke to shake his hand, by this point the players had started to gather. Cooke grabbed my hand and would not let go and he was calling me every name under the sun. I was up close to him by now and his teeth really were pearly white, and as I asked him to take his TEETH out of my face, from nowhere he jumped up and headbutted me. That was it…. bedlam! I went back for him but before I knew it their keeper had charging towards me, bang he cracked me across my head and It was kicking off!! I then turned round, and their keeper was flying across the pitch. Chaddy had seen him hit me and and quickly shoved him away to prevent any further escalation, it all happened so quick. Lads were wrestling, exchanging words, throwing punches and I was in the middle of it, one of my players pushed me away from the melee and I could hear the United fans singing so all I could then think about was celebrating with our fans after a great win. I sprinted over to our fans punching the air and singing with them. There was a small group of Nantwich fans, who then not surprisingly turned on me.
Our fans and their fans began to exchange words, but I just continued to celebrate with our fans. Every game we all clap, thank and celebrate with our fans but not tonight. Only a few of us made it over. The officials had intervened by this point and were escorting everyone off the pitch and to be fair I wanted to stay out there if I could, I was hoping I could stay all night because I had the Beast’s words ringing around my head – ‘Wait until after the game!!’. Based on what had just happened I am guessing he meant it.
As I was out on the pitch I didn’t go down the tunnel directly after the game, so I had no idea of what was going on - I asked my staff and players to give me their accounts. Apparently, the Beast was waiting by the tunnel for me to come off the pitch, he said he was going to kill me. Cam had made his way down the tunnel and was celebrating much to their displeasure, the big guy apparently lost it and he stormed down the tunnel and was heading towards our dressing room. Brian, Chaddy, Matty, Chappy, Doyley, Cameron, Doddy, Curtis Jones, Pottsy and Aaron Morris were in his way! Matty said that he stared at him and thought ’he has totally lost it, if I hit him and it has no effect then that is it!’ From nowhere Brian said that Matty went to ‘thumb’ the Beast in his eye, if he could not see, then we were safe and Brian recalls Matty jumping up trying to prod him in his eye. He was furious so he went at Matty but Aaron was in the way. He picked up Aaron and catapulted him towards the away changing room, then all their players started bouncing Aaron from wall to wall, he had no support as he was surrouned, he had to just take it! Chappy then watched the Beast rip his t-shirt in two and tear it off his back, it was like a scene from the Incredible Hulk as by this point he had no top on! Chappy took one look at him and thought, he is like a raging bull…I am getting out of here. Pottsy and many of players had already made their way into the changing room so Brian was thinking, I am 68 and in the mix, where the hell is Faulkner….?? The Doctor had disappeared, NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!
It started to settle down and then it all kicked off again, Cam made another comment because the Beast said he was going back for me! Cam and Brian tried to stop him but the Beast then pushed them both back towards the dressing room. Brian said he felt like Jason Leonard at Twickenham in the front row of the scrum. Brian said that every time the Beast pushed them, he let out an almighty roar; Brian was laughing at the noise and then the Beast started swinging punches again. Brian recalls looking at Aaron across the way, he said that his face said it all…. Aaron did not ever think he would make it out alive!!
I had no idea what was going on as by this point I was on my own, I’d left the pitch to do the post-match interviews and I thought it must have calmed down as I went towards the tunnel, but as I went to head down it there was a group of Nantwich fans who all had scarves over their faces with their hoods up. They were leant over the railings directly to the side and above the tunnel hurling abuse at me, then I got hit on the head a couple of times from above and behind, then one of them jumped down and squared up to me. Great, I thought ’on my own and surrounded, now what?’ Then out of the corner of my eye I saw this 7 foot bull charging towards me with no top on…. not ashamed to say fear came across me. There was no way I was going to survive. What do you do, fight or flight? I could not run as I was down in the tight tunnel area with the goons all around me... I just stood there and thought ’if he punches you just swing and see what happens’. As he approached me his hands went up in the air…this was it. Then from nowhere, he pushed the Nantwich fan out of the way, told the others to back off and put his arms around me. He said he was sorry for everything and he should not have behaved that way. All the Nantwich players were still waiting at the bottom of the tunnel to see what was going to happen next – I bet they thought he was going to eat me!! He was still pumped up and he literally dragged me down the tunnel. I was just waiting for him to hit me or throw me against the wall and pulverise me. He was roaring and still making this incredible noise – it was harrowing. My heart was beating as I thought he was going to end me! He told everyone to disappear and made sure that I got into the away dressing room in one piece. WOW! It all calmed down and both sets of players returned to their respective dressing rooms – even Aaron made it back in one piece!
By now, you can imagine the adrenaline that was flowing through our dressing room. We were all hugging each other and laughing at what had just happened. From nowhere, Pottsy shouted…’And when we win, we sing’…the loudest rendition of ‘FC United Away’ broke out and we must have sung non-stop for a good five minutes…I am surprised that the Beast didn’t put our dressing room wall through.
Usually I would leave the changing room first and head off to meet the staff and officials from the host club. Not tonight, I was waiting until everyone was changed and ready…I was still fearing for my life despite what had just happened, I was not going out alone just yet! As we went into their clubhouse after the game, I recall walking in and every Nantwich board member and supporter just stared at me. FC Board Member Adrian Seddon was waiting at the bar with a pint for me – wow, did I need this! I recall looking round and Dave Cooke and his management team were congregated at the back of the room. I recall looking at him and then thought of Herman at Darwen for a split second.
He had broken people’s noses during a game but still shared a drink with them afterwards – after all the 90 minutes was over. It does not matter what happens on the pitch, that is in the past. I knew by the look that I was getting that the Nantwich management team were in no mood to approach me. I did the honorable thing and went over. The walk across the clubhouse was a long one, I think everyone was waiting to see what I was going to do. I exchanged words with a couple of their players as they did not want to let it go. I was trying to explain that the commotion after the game wasn’t started by us but they weren’t for listening.
As I approached Dave I could tell he was still angry, however, I gave my hand to Dave to apologise for what had just happened. His staff swarmed round me thinking that the bell for round two was going to be rung, then my staff then flew over, not again!. The only saving grace by this point was that the Beast had vacated the premises. People tell me he is a genuinely nice person and he was devastated by his actions. I will shake his hand next time I see him and thank him for not eating me for supper!! Dave took my hand and apologised. I went to buy him a drink and it was all forgotten. We exchanged numbers and said, if there is anything we can do for each other in the future then you know where each other are. Both sets of staff all shared a joke about what had just happened as after all, it was two good teams in great form, both fighting for promotion and emotions were always going to be high but things got a bit out of hand. The only downside was that by the time we all got into their clubhouse the pizza had all gone. A small price to pay for wanting all my boys with me.
In reality though there is no excuse for what happened that night and we have rightfully received a warning from the FA about our future conduct. However, do not ever tell me that football is just a game…it’s much more than that, winning is everything to me and if we’re going to be successful we need to take that attitude into every game.
On reflection, whether it was 2004 when I scored the winning goal to help Clitheroe win the league, or 2020 with FC United securing the three points, the thought of playing Nantwich away will always be special, it will always bring a smile to my face and you can guarantee one thing…..there will always be a story to tell!
Stay tuned for next week’s edition…. The Coach Journey...
Scenes from the end of the game
Click here to see Reno’s Post match report